PRESERVING OLD VINE HERITAGE
Decanter|January 2022
New legislation in Rioja is aimed at protecting the region’s old vines. But how effective will the new measures be? And does vine age make a real difference to quality in Rioja?
PEDRO BALLESTEROS TORRES MW

Early in 2021, the Rioja DOCa authorities approved a number of measures aimed at preserving the old vines of the region – a strategy focusing on the vineyard rather than on the wines or their distribution. Although this initiative won’t be immediately reflected on the shelves of wine shops, it will have a real effect in the vineyards of Rioja.

Across the EU, the wine sector is highly regulated. Unfortunately, many existing policies, based on concerns about productivity, have led to vineyard replacement rather than preservation. Rioja is promoting changes in the EU legislation that aim to stop this trend, by reallocating financial resources to incentivise growers to keep old vineyards. Although this may look like an insignificant change, it’s a major revolution in European wine policy.

Within its realm of competence, Rioja will train several thousand vine-growers to manage their old vineyards, with the aim of keeping them in production. Land holdings in Rioja are extremely small, so this is a crucial issue.

None of this will have any effect unless growers are also compensated for the lower yields that will result. So, the appellation will include vine age as a key indicator for the setting of grape prices. Extremely low-yield vineyards may even be preserved by considering them as genetic reservoirs – and recompensing the growers accordingly.

Finally, labelling indications will be implemented in due course. Vineyards will also be classified according to the certified age of their vines.

IS OLDER BETTER?

The new legislation is undoubtedly a positive step, but it raises questions about the importance of old vines. Aside from the issue of how to define ‘old vine’ (see box, p38), there are considerations about the role of old vines within a larger ecosystem involving sustainable viticulture, and about wine quality.

‘Small is beautiful’. ‘Artisan is authentic’. ‘Old-vine wine is better’. All three of these assertions are true – if we add ‘in appropriate conditions’ as a qualifier. They don’t hold true when applied uniformly as a rule of thumb.

To be fair, there is often a rational basis for statements such as those. As consumers, many of us tend to have an unconscious preference for products that are described as ‘small’, ‘artisan’ or ‘old vine’ – even though we may not know the exact implications of those words. Certainly, committed wine lovers tend to believe that the best wines come from older vines.

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